ARTIST ROOM

ZIZIPHO POSWA

b.1979

A STORY SPUN IN LAYERS

Zizipho Poswa

CREATING VESSELS THAT TELL STORIES

Words by Keely Shinners

Photography by Retha Ferguson

Zizipho Poswa is a Cape Town-based artist and, along with Andile Dyalvane, founder of Imiso Ceramics. Poswa creates large-scale ceramic vessels inspired by the daily rituals Xhosa women play in traditional and contemporary life.

Each vessel tells a story. Coiled up by hand, the story is spun in layers. It is cyclical. It is a story that has already been told. It is a story that will be told again. The colours threaded in those coils are like events strung on a narrative. The base holds something of a prophecy; the crown, a sort of ending. Were we to apply narrative to this process, Zizipho Poswa’s practice would tell a story that begins with the human and ends with the gods. Human – because its base is small enough to fit on the crown of your head. Divine – because its crown, a pair of brass horns, reaches out to pierce the heavens.

‘The base holds something of a prophecy; the crown, a sort of ending.’

Zizipho Poswa
Zizipho Poswa, iKhetshemiya Bridal Headcloth, Umthwalo series, 2021, Glazed Stoneware, Photography by Justin Coomber

A story told a thousand times becomes tradition. Sometimes, a tradition is a story that does not need to be told. No longer in need of language, it comes embedded, embodied. It can be seen in the way Poswa makes a ceramic vessel. Like a traditional pot, it is hand-coiled and burnished. Often, the vessel is large, sometimes over a half a metre tall, a size that recalls the umkhamba, a pot that can hold twenty-litres of beer. Like a traditional vessel, Poswa’s base starts small – small enough to balance on top of your head – expands around the belly, and narrows again at the lip. What distinguishes them as distinctly modern – and distinctly Poswa – is that these vessels are sealed. Atop their heads, crowns: hairstyles, horns, bowls, amadumbe, ikhetshemiya. Rather than contain, they carry.

Umthwalo is the practice of carrying a heavy load on one’s head – be it wood, water, or laundry – often across great distances. It refers to both the load carried and the act of carrying it. The strength and the burden. Traditionally, it is women’s practice, something Poswa witnessed as a young girl growing up in Mthatha in the Eastern Cape. 

Its smooth surface recalls the skin of the dead, the living, and the as-yet-to-be-born. A stone over which a skin of water flows continuously. It is the skin of space and time, once malleable, burnt taut. So that we might run our palm across it and count the hand-slipped lines like days. Indeed, the vessel is not obliged to have a beginning or end. It contains. The vessel keeps all time together, so that all generations are companions, though not without friction.

Umthwalo is the practice of carrying a heavy load on one’s head, often across great distances. It refers to both the load carried and the act of carrying it. The strength and the burden.’

Zizipho Poswa

The vessels in Poswa’s iLobola series have a strong sense of family between them, where family is both timeless and subject to change. In this way, it mirrors a view of time which is both cyclical and punctuated by moments of incommensurate change. All cyclic views of time hold these two constituents together: the wheel turning and the ground on which it turns. It is a rite of passage. Passage – the wheel turning. Rite – the ground on which it turns. It is a rite of passage, not just for the bride and groom, but for everyone who has been inaugurated into the family  – by blood, by love, by virtue or economy. It is a transfer of life, marked by a transfer of life, lobola. With this in mind, the cow refers more to this life – this wheel, this ground – than any kind of commercial value.

Zizipho Poswa
Zizipho Poswa, Utsiki, ILobola Series, Bronze, Glazed Stoneware, 2021, Photography by Christof van Der Walt

‘It is a rite of passage, not just for the bride and groom, but for everyone who has been inaugurated into the family  – by blood, by love, by virtue or economy.’

If one senses a kind of nostalgia – or homesickness – in Poswa’s works, it is because the home – which once referred to the intersection of the physical and spiritual world – is lost in the vocabulary of the metropolis. At home, one was nearest to the gods in the sky and to the dead in the underworld… At the same time, one was at the starting point and, hopefully, the returning point of all terrestrial journeys. These vessels bridge the present and ancestral, heaven and earth, embody this sense of home. In doing so, they create home wherever they are. They represent a home that might be carried, as one might carry a tent pole. It is a totem against alienation.

‘Coiled up by hand, the story is spun in layers. It is cyclical. It is a story that has already been told. It is a story that will be told again.’

Zizipho Poswa

The vessel now serves a psychological and spiritual – not merely practical – function. Perhaps, this is why they are sealed. The home, being sacred, can carry no more than it already holds, because it already holds everything. Its potential is complete. These vessels, sealed and crowned, operate in the realm of metaphor.

Zizipho Poswa
Zizipho Poswa, uMachira, Umthwalo Series, 2021, Glazed Stoneware, Photography by Christof van der Walt

‘These vessels bridge the present and ancestral, heaven and earth, and embody this sense of home.’

The Greek word metaphor literally means “a carrying over” (from pherein “carry,” meta “over”). In this sense, umthwalo is synonymous with metaphor. A story carried over. A thread that’s yet to end.

ZIZIPHO POSWA

”At home, one was nearest to the gods in the sky and to the dead in the underworld… At the same time, one was at the starting point and, hopefully, the returning point of all terrestrial journeys.”

[1] All italicised sentences are quotes from John Berger’s And our faces, my heart, brief as photos (1984).

ZIZIPHO POSWA

BIOGRAPHY

b.1979

Zizipho Poswa hand-coils clay to speak in magnitude about the role of Xhosa women and about traditional symbols within a contemporary South African landscape. Having grown up in the Eastern Cape’s Mthatha, Poswa moved to Cape Town in order to study Surface Design at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology. In 2005, along with ceramic artist Andile Dyalvane, Poswa opened independent ceramic studio Imiso in Woodstock. Poswa’s works are bright and bulbous like new shoots in the spring: the burden of the earth removed. The first moments of spring, temporal brightness, something new, freedom — these are the moments held in the forms of Zizipho Poswa. The artist’s ceramic sculptures can be found in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Loewe Foundation, in addition to numerous private collections around the world.

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